A Curmudgeon In Paris
When you think of Paris you think of Danton, Marat and Robespierre, Victor Hugo and Japanese wedding photo-opportunities.
Sadly now you also think of terrorist atrocities and desperate homeless migrant families. To hear a police siren is to become acutely aware of where you are, and there are few sights more heartbreaking than entire families living on the streets of the old Latin Quarter. Add in the blinding disco-bateaux Mouches and the often outrageously bad food and you seem to have a city with an identity crisis.
Except that every time I visit Paris I start by disliking it (the Gare du Nord!) and end up falling in love with it again (Montparnasse, sunset by the Seine, the light!) The islands remain Amelie-perfect, but while efforts go into keeping the centre clean and safe, whole arrondissements are either over-exploited or run-down and to be avoided.
The Pompidou Centre (a building I never warmed to) looks tattered, dated and unsophisticated, Montmartre’s now-total opportunism has now wiped out any vestiges of its former charm and the new Les Halles, with its gruesome yellow roof that leaks rain all over the concourse seem like mis-steps as crazy as the despoliation of Camden Town. Add in the hassles of of the once-charming Clingancourt, the restaurants resting on their laurels that serve overpriced stagnant meals, and you realise that parts of Paris are not what they once were.
There are still true pleasures; the massive range of art exhibitions and galleries, le Marché des Enfants Rouges, the flea-market on the Rue de Bretagne, the pretty corner cafes of Rue D’Orleans early in the morning, the mad Marais, the Seine (of course). But the window in which to enjoy an uncrowded stroll gets narrower.
One thing I had never done, which I did this weekend, was visiting Shakespeare & Co, the legendary ‘Americans in Paris’ bookshop. It describes itself thus; ‘Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookshop in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for anglophone writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution.’ Visited by Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound, many ex-pat writers slept there. They were known as Tumbleweeds, and three things were asked of each one: read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours a day, and produce a one-page autobiography. Thousands of autobiographies have been collected and now form an archive.
It is unquestionably one of the world’s great bookshops – and yet to me (warning; blasphemy approaching) it feels too in love with the idea of being a bookshop rather than providing shelves of exciting books. In the same way that some West Coast bookshops play Vivaldi to remind you that you’re in a palace of culture, the shop suggests cosy literariness without providing much excitement. Its selection of books on the shelves seems safe, conservative and a wee bit smug.
Here’s the difference; in Oslo, several of us entered a small independent bookshop and we all ended up buying something – the eclectic range was decided by the taste of the stockists, and was challenging and enthralling. John Sandoe does that for me in London, and so does Foyles. In Shakespeare & Co we came out empty-handed. Tourists were buying tote-bags to say they’d been there, which jars. I may be doing the shop an injustice (they still have regular high-profile readings) but the spot now feels more like a photo-opportunity on the tourist trail.
And that’s where the shop and Paris itself share a link. Both appear to exist more in idealised memories that present-day reality. There are still pleasures to be had, but perhaps one has to look a little deeper now. This time we found a 17th century AirB&B atelier with this view, and all the requisites (unusual wiring, artificial flowers, strange shower fittings etc)…